The word "geek" used to be something bad. If you were called a geek, it was pretty similar to being called a nerd, and that usually meant being an outcast — mainly because you loved learning or were obsessed with something that wasn't considered popular. Times have changed, and the word is now acceptable and serves as a badge of honor to some people. CDV Software wanted to reinforce the coolness factor of the word (in a strange way) by titling their latest Nintendo DS title I Heart Geeks.
The plot is both simple and familiar. Branded as a geek, you've been trying to avoid the jocks since you came to the school. One day, during your usual escape from said jocks, a cheerleader invites you to hide in what looks like an ordinary locker. It turns out that the locker is anything but ordinary as it leads you down the secret lair of the geeks. Your newfound friends Eugene, Gilbert, Milton and Theodore reveal their plan for getting back at the jocks who've tormented them, and they want you to help them. Before they can let you do that, though, you'll have to learn some new skills and pass a few of their tests.
Revenge is a common theme in these tales of geeks versus jocks, but the approach is novel here, as you use fairly complicated Rube Goldberg-like machines to do the work for you. The tests usually consist of mundane things like popping balloons and sending balls from one side to another, but you'll be doing so using intricately constructed machines. For the most part, you're given a few parts to work with while everything else is already placed on the board, and you have to put the parts in the right spots. For example, you may be given nothing but a plank and a spring, but positioning both in certain spots and angles gives you the ability to make a tennis ball bounce from one end of the level to another, triggering a second ball to bounce into a waiting bin. Throughout most of the 100 levels, the game introduces the player to things, with liquids and electricity coming into play to create even more complicated machinery for simple tasks.
The only change to the formula comes in the boss fights, where you pull pranks on one of the four jocks who antagonize you. Whereas the normal levels give you an infinite amount of time to create machines and solve puzzles, these fights give you a strict time limit. Failing to meet that forces you to replay the same fight from the beginning, but considering the rarity with which boss fights occur, it is actually a nice change of pace as opposed to a flaw.
The core of the game is still great, even though it doesn't do anything different from what was introduced many years ago with the PC hit The Incredible Machine and other similar titles. The game still feels like you're doing nothing more than placing the right instruments in the right spots, but that doesn't diminish your enjoyment from seeing a solved puzzle. The mechanics from previous puzzles become building blocks for later puzzles. Understanding all of the gear and chain mechanics from the early puzzles will come into play once you deal with steam and water puzzles, and they both become important once you deal with electrical puzzles and so forth. With the knowledge that your earlier lessons aren't wasted, it really feels like a learning experience.
For a game with such simple mechanics, it is surprising to see I Heart Geeks suffer from a few design issues. The game loves to inundate you with dialogue, but it's presented on screens that fade in and out instead of an elegant stream of screens and text. It becomes more annoying in the tutorial, which has more dialogue than the rest of the game. It's bothersome that you have to constantly switch screens to load up on items and then place them on the board, and that's compounded by the fact that you can only carry five items at a time. For puzzles that have multiple items that need to be used, it feels like unnecessary work. The order in which items are selected is the order in which items are placed. It makes sense until you accidentally select a chain without placing some gears first, forcing you to throw it away and put things in the right order before switching screens to do it correctly. The big issue plaguing the title has to do with the physics, especially for bouncing items. The momentum of the objects relative to their bounce and direction of bounce always feels off, to the point where you sometimes have to rely on random luck instead of careful planning. For a game based on physics and complicated machinery, it's detrimental to have erratic physics.
Design issues aside, there's also the issue of modes — or lack thereof — for the solo player. Yes, the main mode has 100 puzzles, but unless you're trying to challenge yourself for getting the best times per puzzle, there's not much left for you to do once you've solved everything. There isn't a set of more challenging puzzles, no extra downloadable puzzles, and no way to create puzzles on your own. Considering the price tag of $30, that's quite a bit of money for a game that doesn't offer as much as other puzzle games.
There is a multiplayer mode, but you won't be cheering. The game pits you against someone else in a race to solve the puzzle the fastest. The puzzles are culled from the 100 available in single-player mode (minus the boss fights), so if you've already gone through them, you'll instantly know how to solve them. It still makes for a good experience if you're given a puzzle that you both haven't solved, but multiple carts are required for multiplayer gaming.
Read the press release for I Heart Geeks, and you'll notice some emphasis placed on the involvement of Marc Ecko Entertainment, particularly with the game's look. While that is a nice bullet point for the box, one look at the game will have you wondering why this was a big deal in the first place. The designs in the cut scenes are rather simple and lack an edge or distinctive features. In the game, the pieces look normal but lack intricate details that would've made it stand out from other games. The graphics do their job rather well, but to tout the involvement of a big design company means that the look needs to stand out, and that isn't the case here.
The controls aren't all that complicated. The touch-screen handles item selection and placement on the board. Hitting left or right on the d-pad lets you rotate or change the orientation of the selected object, if applicable, while the L or R button can handle the transfer from the item screen to the play field. The basic controls work well enough, though the help system requires that only one object is selected or in the queue before the help icon can be activated. Even then, with the hints disappearing after you let go of the on-screen button, it isn't that helpful. Another issue comes from selecting multiple movable items that are connected. For some reason, the game has a hard time detecting that you want to select and move a gear if a chain is connected, making you select the chain or belt first before the gear. Since the chain or rope disappears if it isn't connected to something, it is a cumbersome and time-consuming experience to throw away the chain, move the gear, go to the other screen to select the chain, and then move back to re-attach the chain.
As for the sound, it's pretty inoffensive. The music serves its purpose but is instantly forgettable, and the few sound effects are only reminders that they exist. Voices are at a minimum as well, with only grunts playing when someone says anything. None of this is bad, but the experience doesn't differ, whether you choose to play the game with full sound or in complete silence.
I Heart Geeks is far from an extraordinary puzzle game. The gameplay is fine, as not too many games try to emulate The Incredible Machine, but the spotty physics dampen the experience. The story would have been intriguing had it bothered to go beyond the setup phase, and the flow of the game feels stilted because of the design decisions. While the controls and sound are decent, the game fails to meet the graphical expectations set forth by having a licensed design company on board. The high price point also becomes a deterrent, especially if you plan on playing this game in multiplayer. It's best to seek out the cheaper alternatives on the system and wait for the price to drop before picking up I Heart Geeks.
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